Friday, November 26, 2010

Anna Madrigal: The Same Old Cis?

Trans landlady, Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis, L.) sizes
up her new tenant, naive cis, white girl
Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney, R.)

If one were to ask those who care about such things which is the best known trans character in fiction, very likely many, both in the US and Europe, would mention Anna Madrigal, the trans woman landlady (and pot grower) from Armistead Maupin's Tales of the City series. Okay, yes there is Gore Vidal's 1968's satirical cause célèbre Myra Breckenridge (and its followup of a few years later called Myron), but both of those books are currently out-of-print, mostly unknown by anyone under 40 and neither has aged especially well—especially after the disastrous 1970 film adaptation of Myra starring Rex Reed (as pre-transition Myron) and Raquel Welch as the title character. It's campy fun for the first half-hour but a near unwatchably bad movie.

Raquel Welch as a sort of trans woman
in Myra Breckenridge

Tales of the City, on the other hand, remains a hugely popular series whose 8th installment just came out, entitled Mary Ann in Autumn. Not only is a very aged Anna Madrigal still alive and kicking, but the book also features a trans man character, Jake, who is the assistant to gay series stalwart Michael (Mouse) Tolliver in his gardening business. Still very much in demand, the Tales series is far more popular in England, France and Germany than it is in the US, where it's always had a strong fan base, but has had a complex history with American media who are seemingly attracted by its Dickensian multi-part serialized cliffhanger format but scared off by its mostly gentle homoeroticism and gay and trans characters. Fortunately, its initial TV version in 1993 was a wildly successful, award-winning adaptation made by Channel 4 in Britain but shown in shamefully expurgated form in America on PBS.

And now, along with this new edition to the collection, comes the announcement that in summer of 2011, a musical version based on the first two books is debuting at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, then off to the O'Neill Theater Center in Connecticut and, hopefully, Broadway after that. And not just any crew is tackling this job, but some pretty high-profile theater and music artists including the director/creator of the Tony award winning Avenue Q, and composer Jake Shears, the main force behind the queer chic band, The Scissor Sisters. This isn't the first musical piece connected with Tales. Maupin collaborated with opera composer Jake Heggie on a concert work called Anna Madrigal Remembers, which starred famed operatic mezzo Frederika von Stade as Anna. But this new version of Tales of the City will be a more complete and commercial musical adaptation.

Jake Shears of the Scissors Sisters

How trans issues are covered in both the books and the now three tv adaptations (two further installments of the series were co-produced by and shown on Showtime) is, as might be expected, a mixed bag. Like Myra Breckenridge, Tales was written by a gay, male author. Maupin was inspired to include a transsexual character after attending a "help pay for SRS" party thrown by a trans woman in San Francisco during the 70s. Maupin has stated that most of Anna comes from his own issues coming to grips with himself as a gay man and maturing into adulthood with a strong need to nurture young people.

Anna tending her (pot) garden both
metaphorically and physically

The good news about Anna is she's very much written as 'a woman of a certain age' with absolutely no drag or camp aspect to her (unlike many even contemporary gay centered portrayals of trans women). She certainly connects with gay men, but in much the same way she connects with young non-trans women... as an aging hippie boho mentor/substitute mom who will sit on the stoop or in the comfy parlor chair, smoke a joint with you and ponder life's complexities and possibilities. Equally groundbreaking is her relationship with a patrician straight older man, Edgar Halcyon, who still considers Anna the love of his life even after she tells him of her trans history. In many ways, it's the most moving romance of many in the entire Tales series. Unique in Tales is how Anna is portrayed as a clearly maternal figure and, later in the series, as a parent. Needless to say, there were no other portrayals of trans people during the 70s showing them in romances or parenting, and Maupin deserves much credit for going there with the character.

Yet there are some "unfortunate" parts to her portrayal. Maupin describes her as keeping a pre-transition photo of herself on her bedside table showing her in her navy uniform (Maupin was a former naval officer himself). While I know trans women who keep 'pre' photos in their homes (most often for their children or families) I've never known a trans person who would want an image of her 'pre' self in such an intimate spot. In a more minor bit of misinformation, Anna is described as going to Denmark to get SRS (no doubt copying what Maupin had heard about Christine Jorgensen) even though SRS was stopped in that country long before Anna could have gone there. In the most sensationalistic part of his depiction, the name "Anna Madrigal" is said to have come from an anagram of "a man and a girl." Yes, there are bi-gender or gender queer people these days, but for someone who defines herself as a woman, which Anna clearly does, to describe herself as a man and a girl is a bizarre author's fantasy of what a trans woman is. (curiously, Maupin didn't initially plan on the anagram, and only wrote it into the story when one of the readers of the daily serialized version of Tales, which debuted in the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper in the late 70s, informed him of it).

2010: Armistead Maupin being hugged by Olympia

In all the tv adaptations, Anna was portrayed by academy award winning actress Olympia Dukakis who has called her experience playing Anna one of the highlights of her career. Dukakis completely plays Anna as a woman. She doesn't attempt to do "unsuccessfully trying to be a woman" schtick as Felicity Huffman did in TransAmerica or inject "residual maleness" into the character. When the saga begins, Anna is twelve years post-transition, and while she has some anxiety about people around her knowing of her history (there is a later blackmail plot against her in the saga), she's in no way ashamed of it nor does she show any signs of allowing anyone to devalue her womanhood.

Would the role have been better had it been played by an actual trans actress? It's hard to know. Dukakis is certainly one of the best stage and film actresses in the US and she played Anna with the same care, passion and thoughtfulness as she does all her roles. There was no attempt to "have fun" with the role or to play it with cis-sexual assumptions or cliches about trans women, nor was it a "play a freak, or person with a disability to win an award" kind of portrayal. Given the choice, I would much rather have a non-trans woman play the role than have, say, a drag or gay male performer portraying this character.

The TV version of Tales does have several scenes where I thought an actual trans woman might have given more perspective. In the second series, More Tales of the City, there is a scene of Anna telling a group of people about her history (including someone she barely knows). It's a little glib and, while you can see Anna is somewhat conflicted telling it to them, it has none of the anxiety of how it might impact their relationship with her. There's another scene where Anna reconnected with her mother (who she hasn't seen since she was 16) and, while it's a moving portrayal of showing someone who needs a mother's love and acceptance, it has a flatness when compared to many of the "family reconnection" experiences of trans people I've heard. Such experiences from both parties, even if they result in a loving relationship, are often multi-layered, with bumps and starts and hugely conflicted.

Broadway/Cabaret icon Betty Buckley

Which leads us to Tales of the City: The Musical. It has already been announced the role of Anna is to be filled by Tony-award-winning actress Betty Buckley, best known for singing the famous song "Memory" in the original Broadway production of "Cats," the tv show "8 is Enough" and numerous Broadway revivals. More to the point, Ms. Buckley is a kind of gay male icon as a Broadway performer and cabaret singer, right up there with Patti LuPone, Chita Rivera and one step below Liza. There's no question she has a certain short-term draw to the gay musical-going public and to those who are real Broadway fanatics... perhaps the starter audience needed to get such a show off and running.

White male John Gielgud as Othello

But the question remains, are there trans actress/singers who could play the role of Anna and, perhaps, bring more authenticity and first person experience to it? For centuries white star actors in blackface played Othello. It was only around the time when Paul Robeson tackled the role in England in 1930 and later on Broadway in 1943, did the practice of blackface with the role start dying out.** One immediate trans woman performer from San Francisco who is perfectly capable of playing Anna is cabaret star/actress Veronica Klaus, who has both the vocal and acting chops for such a role. Another possible choice might be Chicago transgender actress Alexandra Billings, who's appeared in leading roles in that city for years and has long career in cabaret club performances. Klaus and Billings are, perhaps, a little young for the role (although there are plenty of Broadway performers who've played 'older')

Adele Anderson from 'Fascinating Aida'

My first choice for a trans woman who would play this role 'for real' is British performer Adele Anderson, an Olivier-nominated performer who's been in a number of West End shows and is best know as one of the pillars of the award winning group Fascinating Aida, an all women's comedy/cabaret group which has been famous in England for decades. Anderson, is a powerful, moving singer/actress/composer/director of the right age (mid-50s) and even has a passing resemblance to Olympia Dukakis. How often do such opportunities come in the life of a trans person performing in mainstream theater? How often are such issues even discussed? It's worth noting that in the musical version of "Priscilla Queen of the Desert" opens in March 2011 on Broadway after a long run in Australia, London and Toronto, the role of post-op trans woman Bernadette is being portrayed by, yes, a gay male performer, Tony Sheldon.**

Gay male Tony Sheldon as Bernadette in Priscilla

While I wish Ms. Buckley well and hope the show will have a long New York run, yet again I suspect we'll be having endless interviews with her about "what's it like to play a transsexual," "did you have concerns [as a 'real' woman and normal actress] to accept a role like that?" And after concerned inquiries from the likes of Regis and Kelly or 'The View' gang, who with furrowed eyebrows and studied concern will ask Ms. Buckley about 'transgenders', and will be answered with responses like, "well... I know some of 'them'" or "I had a transsexual advisor who's become my best bud" as though that's really a substitute for having a trans woman in the role. We'll have articles written which will, no doubt, explain for us how Betty Buckley is a flesh and blood woman, very feminine and Anna the transsexual is just a character she plays (heaven forfend her role should get her confused with the 'real thing'). Dukakis, who was very to the point about not trying to somehow speak for trans people's experience, has related she actually had speaking engagements (especially with women's groups) cancelled on her after she played Anna 10 years ago. So it's worth asking if Broadway is still really ready to have a trans actress/singer, not just as "freaky window dressing" but as a central character? Sadly, we seem to already have our answer.

*There were famous black Othellos like 19th Century Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge, who tragically never performed the role in the US.

**The original portrayal of the trans women character in the Australian film version of Priscilla was actor Terrance Stamp. Adele Anderson later explained in an interview that, before he made the film, after he'd heard about her from a friend of a friend, Stamp invited her to an incredibly uncomfortable dinner to pick her brain and ask her what it was like to 'be a transsexual.' About 2/3rds of the way through, he made it clear that he didn't actually understand that she, herself, was trans. She quipped he clearly didn't use one iota of her perspective in the final film nor did he credit her as an advisor.


  1. Forgot about Rebecca Romijn's Alexis Meade character from 'Ugly Betty'

  2. Monica: Ugly Betty's been off the air for a year already (it pretty much jumped the shark after the first season), Alexis was booted off in the second year of the series. Tales of the City books are all still in print (and have been for 30+ years) and, I suspect with the musical, going to be rediscovered by entirely new generations to come. No comparison. It's fair to say without Tales of the City, which was really the first non-pathologized portrayal of gay and trans people on TV in this country (in a detailed, not just-one-episode kind of way) there would be no Ugly Betty.

  3. i think Alexandra Billings would've been a good Madrigal choice. she's a powerhouse vocalist and one of the best performers i've ever seen on a stage.

  4. @Willam:

    Alexandra's certainly a wonderful performer and singer and I'm sure would do a great job. If I were doing casting, I might be concerned if she has the right 'tone' for the part... Anna is very laid back, elegant and alternately warm and guarded whereas I think Alexandra tends to be more 'out there,' theatrical and either potboiler emotional or wacky... but given the chance I'm sure there's little she couldn't do.

    There is another trans performer/vocalist in NYC named Bianca Leigh who's a very good torch singer. She was attached to the show during its workshop phase (although not as Anna Madrigal)... I'm not sure if she'll be in the ACT production. Personally, for the kind of show "Tales" would be and the kind of queer-chic they're trying to impart, I still feel a good trans performer would pull more crowds in the long run in than Betty Buckley who is probably more about getting initial financing.


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